April: and some news to follow, but, first, our “secret poem”: John Berryman’s beautiful “The Dream Songs 14,” masterfully and movingly introduced by Plume contributor John Fitzgerald.
I first became aware of John Berryman in 1989. That’s when FSG published his Collected Poems 1937-1971. Back then, when I was a burgeoning poet, the Los Angeles Times had a book section, which included a single poem in each Sunday edition. In celebration of this collection, it published Images of Elspeth. I could not stop reading it. I cut it out and kept it on my desk. I read it every day over and over. I made pencil marks on it to figure out the meter. It was to me the perfect poem. I bought the book, of course. It was $25.00, which for me, in 1989, required saving up a while, as it was about an eighth of my weekly pay.
Eventually, I folded up the L.A. Times reprint and placed it inside the book at page 174. It’s still there to this day. The book is about 350 pages, and I’ve read them all several times. But even though it purports to collect his poems from 1937-1971, it does not include 77 Dream Songs, for which Berryman won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965. Berryman continued to expand the Dream Songs until there were 385, under the title His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, which won the National Book Award in 1969. These two books comprise all of John Berryman’s work.
The Dream Songs consist of three free verse stanzas with six lines per stanza. Though each song is numbered, a few have individual titles. My works The Mind, and The Charter of Effects, were influenced heavily by his work. Indeed, let’s just say it: I’ve been under the influence of John Berryman ever since.
The main character, Henry, is not simply autobiographical, according to Berryman. He insists Henry is imaginary, the way I insist The Likeness, and Counsel are imaginary characters in The Charter of Effects. There is this clash of personalities. In fact, I lie in every poem—that’s the point. It’s poetry because I want to reveal the truth, but don’t want to admit it’s about me. I learned this from Berryman. Henry is a white, middle-aged American who has suffered a tremendous loss. Henry speaks in the first, second, and third persons. He has an unnamed friend who refers to Henry as Mr. Bones.
In 1965, the jurors for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry were Stanley Kunitz and Richard Wilbur. Interestingly, the judges that year decided that if the award were based strictly on merit, it should go to Theodore Roethke, for his collection “The Far Field.” They called his poems “death-haunted,” and “a rare modern phenomenon.” But Roethke died in 1963, and had already received a Pulitzer in 1953. William Carlos Williams had just received the prize posthumously. The judges were torn between their feelings that the outstanding book of the year deserves the prize, but at the same time, the prize should be conferred upon the living.
They passed this decision onto the Board, noting that ever since the 1956 publication of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, “Berryman’s peers among the poets have almost unanimously proclaimed his brilliance.” They describe 77 Dream Songsas “fresh evidence of a fierce and idiosyncratic imagination.” Kunitz writes that it “is a shock to come upon this poet for the first time, since few of us are prepared to hear his convulsive rhythms, or to tolerate his breakdown of syntax and persons, of the type associated with psychic breakdown. Sometimes his compulsive voices get out of control and break into hysteria, bathos, or self-pity, but at his best he is a true original, now frightening, now wildly funny. This book, we are reasonably confident, belongs to the history of American poetry.”
The jurors went on to observe that Berryman was a leading contender for the National Book Award that year as well, which would be announced prior to the Pulitzer, and should he win that, they preferred Roethke. As it turned out, Roethke’s “The Far Field” took the National Book Award that year. The Board ultimately decided in favor of 77 Dream Songs. So much for the politics of prizes, but back to the Dream Songs.
The one I have chosen is number fourteen. The poems can be depressing, and in hindsight, suicidal. In 1972 Berryman jumped to his death off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minnesota. As he writes earlier in Images of Elspeth, “many thought Berryman was under weigh/he wasn’t sure himself.” He struggled with alcohol, so has lines like “Dance! from Savannah Garnette with your slur/hypnotic, you’ll stay many.” He is depressed, and is screaming it to everyone. He is so alone. He sees no end but the water below. Berryman, through Henry, cries out for help.
The Dream Songs 14
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
John FitzGerald is a poet, writer, editor, and attorney for the disabled in Los Angeles. A dual citizen of the U.S. and Ireland, he attended the University of West Los Angeles School of Law, where he was editor of the Law Review. He is author ofFavorite Bedtime Stories (Salmon Poetry), The Mind (Salmon Poetry), Telling Time by the Shadows (Turning Point), and Spring Water (Turning Point Books Prize). Other works include Primate, a novel & screenplay, and the non-fiction For All I Know. He has contributed to the anthologies Even the Daybreak (Salmon Poetry), Human and Inhuman Monstrous Poems (Everyman), Poetry: Reading it, Writing it, Publishing it (Salmon Poetry), Dogs Singing: A Tribute Anthology (Salmon Poetry), Rubicon: Words and Art inspired by Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis (Sybaritic Press), and From the Four-Chambered Heart: In Tribute to Anais Nin (Sybaritic Press), and to numerous journals, including The Warwick Review, World Literature Today, MadHatters Review, Barnwood Mag, and Lit Bridge.
Ah – as many of you might be, I am now eying my bookcase: where are my tattered copies? Many thanks, John!
And now for news.
First, a hearty welcome to our newest Staff member, Associate Editor-at-Large Leeya Mehta. Leeya is a writer and entrepreneur, who grew up in Bombay. She is the author of The Towers of Silence and winner of the 2016 Readers’ Choice Award from DistrictLit. She lives in Washington D.C., where she is working on her novel, Extinction. Leeya will be responsible for a number of tasks, including recruiting emerging and international poets and organizing Plume readings. We’re very fortunate indeed to have her aboard; you can see her picture and read her bio note on the Staff page, too.
If you are anywhere near Tampa/Saint Petersburg, do yourself a favor: come to our fifth annual Plume/SPC Poetry Reading, featuring Robert Pinsky, April 3 @ 7:30 PM at the fine old venue The Palladium in Saint Petersburg, Florida. Book signings, chat afterwards. Here’s the flyer:
Speaking of the new anthology – see below, again. If you like, purchase a copy for yourself, a friend – or as some already are doing, order in bulk for your writing class (with attendant discount). Available through our Store on the Plume homepage, MadHat Press, Amazon, B&N, et cetera.
Also available at those sites, Plume Interviews, a compilation of Feature Selection conversations with Nin Andrews, Christopher Buckley, David Clewell, Cynthia Cruz, Jim Daniels, Tess Gallagher, Ani Gjika, Hank Lazer, Luljeta Lleshanaku, Amit Mujmudar, Lawrence Matsuda, Thomas McCarthy, Emmanuel Moses, D. Nurkse, Max Ritvo, Ira Sadoff, Adam Tavel, Jean Valentine, and Marc Vincenz.Edited by Nancy Mitchell, with some small contributions from me; interviews include Ms. Mitchell, Ani Gjika, Hélène Cardona, and Glenn Mott.
We are – still! — working on our long overdue reorganization of our Search and Archive tags – soon, you will find we have dates and issue #s to accompany all present and past poems.
In this issue’s Editor’s Note, you’ll be chagrined to find I have returned to my old childhood haunts – and one object that made its appearance rather early and whose significance in my life and that of my friends cannot be overstated: the cigarette. Hardly the moving farewell extended to Tom Lux by his long-time friend Chard DeNiord, which has received so much positive attention the past weeks; for that I can only apologize. (But note: another work from Chard appears in this issue, in the Essays & Comment column – his meditations on the state of contemporary American poetry — don’t miss it.)
We are gearing up for readings in support of Plume Poetry 5. Should you have an interest in hosting one in your city, please email me at email@example.com
Finally, our cover art this month comes from Albertus Gorman – an artist whose work has graced our homepage often over the years. Its title is “Bluer than Blue”, digital photograph, dimensions variable, 2017. Shot on location at the Falls of the Ohio State Park, this image documents the finding of a lost toy deposited in the park courtesy of a high Ohio River.
Here, too, a bit more about this gifted artist and his fascinating work:
In addition to being an exhibiting artist, Albertus Gorman is the Coordinator of Public Programs and Engagement at the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany, IN. Gorman has additionally worked for many years as a curator, art writer, and has directed an art program for adults with developmental disabilities.
Since 2003, Albertus Gorman has imagined himself as the “Unofficial Artist in Residence” at the Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville, IN. In the wake of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial of which our area played a key role…Gorman became alarmed at how much the physical environment had changed since the early explorations of our country. Realizing that this process is ever continuing, the artist sought to document and understand where we are in this moment in time and space by making art from materials that the Ohio River deposits into the park through flooding. Using very simple means, Gorman has developed over time, different artmaking strategies and a vocabulary of materials and forms from which he creates his relational art. Gorman sees his projects as being a collaboration with Nature and among his favored materials are river-polished Styrofoam, driftwood, plastic, coal, glass, and more. Although his artistic activities occur with a localized park, Gorman uses his WordPress blog, “Artist at Exit 0 Riverblog” to communicate with people around the world.